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An intensifying US campaign against Iran

Amid US charges of Iran's hand in Iraq's instability, some counsel caution.

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Still, headlines linking Iran to the Karbala killings emerged again in early July, after a US general said that two captured operatives, a Lebanese Hizbullah member, and an Iraqi group leader, said that Iran's Qods Force "knew of and supported planning" for the attack. But in late July, Time magazine reported – based on an internal US Army investigation and interviews with US and Iraqi witnesses – that details "suggest" an inside job by the Iraqi police.

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The result of this buildup of US allegations of Iranian involvement in Iraq could also prove to be a prelude to war: "If you can make the case that Iranians are actually killing Americans, that makes it extremely difficult for those opponents of military action to depict the administration as warmongering," adds Parsi, also the head of the National Iranian American Council.

Iranian officials deny undermining US efforts in Iraq, though senior officers note that US forces throughout the Gulf and in Iraq and Afghanistan are often within Iranian missile range. Revolutionary Guard commander Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi vowed this week that "America will receive a heavier punch from the guards in the future."

Some hard-liners in Iran, who today exert strong influence over every power center in the Islamic Republic, welcome the steady drumbeat from Washington as proof of US ill intent, says Hadi Semati, a political scientist in Tehran.

"I haven't seen this level before [of] a systematic [US] propaganda campaign, partly disinformation, partly probably true, but exaggerating it … to blame Iran for everything," says Mr. Semati, who recently spent three years at think tanks in Washington. "It reinforces the idea that people have in this town [Tehran] that any discussions on Iraq are purely tactical, and that the Americans are not serious."

The Iraq effort "is already a failure," says Semati. "Blaming Iran serves a purpose of partially, or even mostly, from the perspective of hard-liners in Washington, making the situation look better."

The Halabja example

Such episodes echo past hostile US-Iran allegations, as in Somalia, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Few examples are as clear-cut as that of Halabja, the Kurdish town in northern Iraq gassed by Saddam Hussein's troops in 1988 in a strike that left up to 5,000 civilians dead.

Iraq increasingly received the backing of the US and the West in its 1980s war against Iran. So US officials, to cast doubt that Iraq was solely responsible for such a war crime, began suggesting that Iran was also to blame.

"There is a rush to judgment [against Iran today], and this should be questioned, given the past and the outright dissembling that occurred [in 1988] when it was convenient to accuse the Iranians because the American ally Iraq was doing something totally embarrassing to the Reagan administration," says Joost Hiltermann, author of the recently published "A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja."

"These people have learned the lesson that this kind of lying works and will do it again," says Mr. Hiltermann, the Istanbul-based Middle East director for the International Crisis Group.

The charge against Iran took root so effectively in the media – this newspaper also published notable, unattributed examples of "good intelligence" that cited Iran's role – that until recently, references to the "Iraqi" gassing of Halabja yielded letters of complaint from readers, pointing out the Iranian role, and offering US government documents as proof.

The Halabja case suggests "an exceptional attempt at naked deception," says Hiltermann in his study, noting that 18 tons of Iraqi secret police and intelligence documents seized in northern Iraq in 1991 make frequent reference to Iraqi use of chemical weapons, but none about any chemical use by Iran.

Growing antipathy toward Iran

If anything, the level of antipathy toward Iran is higher today than two decades ago.

"We are confronting Iranian behavior across a variety of different fronts on a number of 'battlefields,' if you will," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said last week. "We confront them on the ground in Iraq. Our military is doing that. We are confronting Iran diplomatically … with respect to their nuclear program."

"This administration has a track record of doing what it thinks is right, and doing it regardless [of the facts].... The debate is far less about 'Can it be true?' or 'Can it not be true?' " says Parsi. The bigger picture, he says, is a regional power struggle between a strengthening Iran and an America weakened by debacle in Iraq.